The poem is only four lines long, but, through those lines, the poet is able to create an interesting narrative, raise numerous questions, all while commenting on the nature of human beings. ‘Earth’ alludes to a dark future, one in which humankind has not sorted out its differences but has instead leaned into them, and it has led to the destruction of the Earth.
The poem begins with the speaker noting that the “planet,” Earth, did not explode of itself. The astronomer knows that something had to happen in order for this planet to literally explode, but he doesn’t know exactly what. While gazing at the stars, all he can tell is that the race who used to live there must’ve been quite intelligent. They had the ability to cause this kind of massive destruction. Readers have to interpret the irony in these lines as the poet is without a doubt suggesting that only a lack of intelligence could’ve resulted in such a disaster.
You can read the full poem here.
“A planet doesn’t explode of itself,” said drily
In the first lines of ‘Earth,’ the speaker begins with a hook or statement meant to draw the reader in and keep their attention. He says that a “planet doesn’t explode of itself.” This statement is quite surprising right at the beginning of a poem and will certainly inspire the reader to continue into the next lines. Enjambment also makes reading this poem quite easy. It’s hard to stop after the first line when the phrase doesn’t conclude until the second.
The speaker is a “Martian astronomer,” an alien who is studying the Earth and considering what possibly happened to the planet. He knows that the Earth didn’t explode itself, something had to cause it.
The phrase “gazing off into the air” provides this poem with a casual tone. It’s clear that studying the Earth is an everyday event for the Martian. He’s not moved by the loss of the people on the planet or of the planet itself. He’s stargazing, as his profession requires him to.
Intelligent beings must have been living there.”
In the next two lines, the astronomer adds, with an undeniable sense of irony, that the Earth’s explosion proves that “highly / Intelligent beings” lived there. The past tense here is quite important as the destruction of the Earth also means that all of the human beings who lived there died.
The intelligence the Martian sees is in humanity’s ability to create weapons and technology powerful enough to destroy a planet. But, by complimenting (perhaps sarcastically) this accomplishment, he is also highlighting humanity’s lack of intelligence. No intelligent race would explode its own planet. It’s not stated within the lines of ‘Earth’ why the planet exploded, but it seems likely that it occurred due to some planet-wide conflict.
Structure and Form
‘Earth’ by John Hall Wheelock is a four-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB, with both sets of rhymes perfectly aligning. Wheelock doesn’t use a specific metrical pattern within the text. But, the lines are very similar in length, ranging from twelve to fourteen syllables per line. The lines are packed full of words, some of which are longer than one might be used to finding in a piece of verse. The phrase “Martian astronomer, gazing” is a good example.
Throughout ‘Earth,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of text. For example, “The Martian astronomer, gazing off into the air.” This can be accomplished through the use of punctuation or through a natural pause in the meter.
- Irony: can be seen in the last lines when the speaker, a Martian astronomer, suggests that human beings were intelligent and proved it through their ability to destroy their planet. This may prove their technical intelligence but does quite the opposite in regard to common sense and ability to control conflict and respect one another.
The purpose is to warn and remind readers about humanity’s capacity to do harm to one another. This remains true no matter how advanced technology gets or how intelligent we seem.
The tone is conversational and unperturbed. The speaker is relaying something an alien astronomer said and saw about the planet Earth. That astronomer’s words are clear and without emotion.
The meaning is that despite all of humankind’s intelligence and ability, we still may end up destroying one another and the entire planet. The poem acts as a kind of warning, suggesting that we are far from safe with the world and relationships as they are.
The mood is at once amused and concerned. Readers should be left thoughtfully considering the future of planet Earth while also feeling entertained and amused by the poet’s use of language and dialogue.
The themes used in this poem are the nature of humankind and the future. The speaker spends the four lines of this piece exploring what the future of humanity and the planet looks like. It’s not good, he decides.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Earth’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘August, 1914’ by Vera May Brittain – a short anti-war poem that speaks on the beginnings of conflict from a “divine” perspective.
- ‘Halloween in the Anthropocene, 2015’ by Craig Santos Perez – uses Halloween to speak on privileged, cultural appropriation, and the climate crisis.
- ‘Letter to My Great, Great, Grandchild’ by J.P. Grasser – a powerful poem about the climate crisis. Throughout, the poet alludes to terrible planetary changes that occur in only a few generations.